Students with masks

Norman High students wear masks as they cheer on the volleyball team during the Clash volleyball game Sept. 10 at Norman High School.

As Norman students head back to school this week, experts say there’s a number of steps parents can take to protect kids against the delta variant and rising COVID-19 numbers.

The American Academy of Pediatrics reports children accounted for nearly 20% of all COVID-19 cases for the week ending July 29, around 5% more than when the alpha variant spread. With an increased rate of transmission, local pediatric health experts say precautions for back to school are more important than ever before.

Dr. Rachna May, a pediatric specialist with OU Health, said if a student got sick with the alpha variant at school, they could maybe infect two other people. But with the delta variant, that student could spread COVID-19 to eight to 10 people.

“That’s why we’ve seen such a rapid spread in states like Florida, Louisiana and Texas, and that is what creates all the concern for this school year, especially because we are going into the school year with a mandate that doesn’t allow for proper protection,” May said.

While some districts are still choosing to require masks this fall, Senate Bill 658, signed into law this summer, restricts public districts or universities from issuing vaccination or masking mandates unless a state of emergency is declared.

The delta variant of COVID-19 is 50% more contagious than the alpha variant, according to a World Health Organization report issued earlier this month.

Over the last year, May said she saw few younger children affected, but in the last two weeks, she has seen a rise in babies needing oxygen.

“We are seeing a burst of kids admitted to the hospital who are needing a lot of support just to breathe, and this just wasn’t happening last year,” May said.

Dr. Kathryn Cook, pediatric hospitalist for Norman Regional Health Systems, has three kids to prepare for the return to school. She said like most parents, she is nervous about the rising number of COVID-19 cases.

She said the delta variant is causing spikes across the country as other viruses that weren’t as common last winter or fall begin to peak.

“Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) usually peaks in the winter, and it’s causing a lot of pediatric hospitalizations right now, which is really an unusual time of year,” Cook said. “Between RSV, influenza and adenoviruses, we are seeing colder weather viruses during the summer.”

Cook said she vaccinated her son, and highly recommends vaccinating eligible children.

Currently, children 12 years and older are eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, and WebMD reported in July the manufacturer plans to request emergency authorization for children ages five through 11.

“Also, when family members of students who aren’t eligible get vaccinated, you can really create a bubble around your child to help protect them as much as you can,” Cook said.

NRHS, Norman Public Schools and the City of Norman are teaming up to provide Pfizer vaccines at back-to-school nights this week at Alcott, Whittier and Irving Middle Schools and both high schools.

Both Cook and May suggest equipping students with sanitizer and a mask in their backpack.

Cook said masking worked to keep kids healthy last year, and despite changes handed down by the state legislature, the expectation should be that kids will wear masks as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the AAP.

“Everyone in the school setting, whether vaccinated or not, should be wearing the mask,” Cook said.

A Duke study conducted from March through June 2021 in 100 districts and 14 charter schools in North Carolina showed masks were an effective measure against the transmission of COVID-19 in schools and on buses.

May said schools can take measures for additional protection like opening a window to increase air circulation and creating classroom pods to avoid excessive intermingling.

With multiple viruses spreading right now, May underscored the importance of reaching out to a doctor or going to urgent care if your child gets sick.

“If you don’t have COVID-19, then you go back to school when you feel well,” May said. “If you have COVID-19, then we should really be keeping those kids at home in order to keep other kids at school safe.”

Jeff Elkins covers business, living and community stories for The Transcript. Reach him at jelkins@normantranscript.com or at @JeffElkins12 on Twitter.

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